Aidan Smith's TV review: 'Renegade Nell is the dandy highwaywoman'

Sally Wainwright’s drama is a leap from Happy Valley, apart from the strong woman who’s been hardwired not to take any nonsense from men

Renegade Nell Disney+


Big Mood Channel 4

Michael Portillo in the breeks he dared not wear in Glasgow. Picture: FreemantleMichael Portillo in the breeks he dared not wear in Glasgow. Picture: Freemantle
Michael Portillo in the breeks he dared not wear in Glasgow. Picture: Freemantle


Passenger ITV


Great British Railway Journeys BBC2


The last time we saw Louisa Harland was in the final episode of Derry Girls. That brilliantly bawdy comedy which dared to mine the Irish Troubles for laughs ended with the students of Our Lady Immaculate College voting in the referendum for the Good Friday Agreement.

Harland’s Orla was like Harpo Marx. Okay, so maybe she didn’t play the harp and wasn’t mute but I’m persisting with the comparison. Orla had frizzy hair and even when she wasn’t speaking, because she didn’t say as much as the others, you still noticed her larking about at the back, which was Harpo’s trick – in her case mainly while munching her way through the entire range of cheap ’n’ chewy confectionery produced in the 1990s. In the booth she bit off the end of her pencil and instead of a cross doodled a smiley face.

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Now Harland has a star role. You might like this metaphor better: she’s taken over the sweet shop in Renegade Nell. The drama’s director wanted a big performance so audiences would miss her during those rare moments when she’s not on screen. She delivers. Indeed, as this is a highwayman romp, she stands and delivers.

What’s been your involvement with highwayman romps? I go all the way back to Monty Python so right at the start of the eight-parter I’m shouting: “Your lupins or your life!” A ridiculous demand, granted, but Renegade Nell isn’t afraid of being daft, with our heroine receiving regular visits from a tiny, winged fairy. This isn’t surprising in a Disney+ show but is in a Sally Wainwright show. And now for something completely different for the Happy Valley creator? Well, up to a point. For in the early 18th century Nell Jackson is simply another strong woman who’s been hardwired not to take any nonsense from men, even when they brandish guns.

Those opening minutes are thrilling with Nell holding up a hold-up. The fairy grants her superpowers - “Something happens to me inside … I’m untouchable” - so she can see bullets in flight and duck. Then - thou go, girl - boot a carriage door clean off its hinges so it hurtles 30 feet through the air and knocks out one of the would-be robbers.

There’s a lot of this. Nell has been widowed and then sees her father murdered by a psychopathic toff so there’s plenty of class war subtext, too. She turns to highway theft - “A furtle froo yer fings” - to survive. That toff sports a Dick Dastardly moustache and if this isn’t sufficiently evocative of the classic kids’ TV of my era there’s a moment when one of the horses appears to be talking, just like Mr Ed.

Next to Orla in Derry Girls was neurotic, nerdy Clare played by Nicola Coughlan who also has a new show, the dramedy Big Mood (Channel 4). I like the beginning of this one, too, as Coughlan on an electric scooter whizzes through London streets, smiling and waving, only to dismount and give the vehicle away to a passer-by, accepting that the reflection of herself in a shop window had been a turn-off.

Coughlan’s Maggie is impulsive and erratic with some of Clare’s self-loathing but has Eddie looking out for her. She’s played by Lydia West, one of the breakout stars from It’s a Sin whose character was such a compassionate friend in the Aids drama. Maggie is a playwright, or trying to be one, while Eddie owns a bar. Her manager answers to the name of Klent, a Nathan Barley-type imbecile, which amuses the girls, and Big Mood’s scene-setting is promising.

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But after that I only laugh once. Maggie, due to talk at her old school, recalls her narrow escape at the hands of a creepy teacher. Eddie says: “Didn’t shag a child? Wow, we should nominate him for a Pride of Britain award!” Then after the talk - disastrous - Maggie shags the headmaster.

She has issues; this becomes ever clearer. Eddie organises a surprise 30th birthday party for her in the pub. It’s Love Actually-themed, which should produce easy but still valid and always enjoyable jokes. Unfortunately it doesn’t.

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Fifty shades of plum. That would sum up Michael Portillo’s array of breeks and I really wanted the presenter of Great British Railway Journeys (BBC2) to turn up in Glasgow sporting a pair. Instead he opts for blue and later on, because in this city balance is vital, green.

We know that many Tory MPs are quitting Parliament, with more expected to be removed from their seats come the election. Some must be casting envious glances at Portillo, ousted so epochally in 1997, and the career he’s forged so successfully in track-based travelogues, but who could do this job better?

In Scotland all week for his series on how Britain rebuilt after the Second World War, he investigates Glasgow’s motorway fetish and new town brutalism. But before the tenements at Townhead were pulled down, Joan Eardley painted local children, urchins with big eyes and empty bellies. Eardley was born in Sussex and then claimed by Glasgow (though Catterline in the Mearns has a claim on her, too). Portillo meets sisters Pat and Ann Sampson and after establishing the meaning of the Scots term “piece” he hears how they and their siblings - 12 kids in all - modelled for the artist whose studio was across the road from their school.

For this they each earned three old pennies. They were also given early sketches for works which would later be acclaimed as masterpieces. “Obviously we had no idea,” says Pat, “so we made them into paper aeroplanes.” Charming programme, charming host. By the way, if he was to select one pair of those plum strides as his favourites, and posh paint suppliers Farrow & Ball were to add the colour to their range, what do you think they might call it - Portillo’s Crotch?

Passenger (ITV) is nothing to do with trains. In fact, I’m not yet sure why the drama is so named. But then “This isn’t Twin Peaks, luv” would be an odd title, as would “You’re like Vera, boss” and “It’s not Broadchurch, you know”. All of this is dialogue from the first couple of episodes as detective Riya (Wunmi Mosaku), more used to stolen ladders and bins, suddenly has to find missing girls. Welcome to Chadder Vale for some folk-horror yet to establish its own identity, though top marks to the locations manager for finding the grottiest social club and most godforsaken chippy.



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